What is simultaneously amazing and obvious about social media – and in this case, especially Twitter – is how easily our shared meat-based existence becomes an intimate of our virtual social worlds. Some things, like the ill-begotten Weather Channel flurry naming system, register as powerful but brief blips on our trending topics ( #nemo ugh ). The light that burns twice as bright, and all that.

Other topics, such as the saga of the retiring Pope and his subsequent replacement, generate multiple trending topics and hash tags. They bounce in and out of our social existence periodically, making their presence known only when there is some new thing to report and discuss.

But still other things, like the Mars Curiosity Rover, have launched entire new communities around both the technology and the people who make up the program. At the South by Southwest shindig this week, @MarsCuriosity and its attached social phenomenon were awarded the Interactive Award for Best Social Media Campaign. Along with the Curiosity Twitter account, the social media team at NASA also engaged the Twitter audience directly with heavy campaigning around the landing of the Rover:

NASA Tweetup and NASA Social events added a “you are there” element to the campaign. Social media followers were randomly selected to go behind the scenes for launch and landing. They met with scientists and engineers, took pictures, asked questions and shared the experience via their own social media accounts, making them citizen journalists and ambassadors for the mission.

Is it amazing that a car-sized hunk of metal gets 1.3m followers and its own parody account ( @SarcasticRover ) with 100k followers of its own? Or does this phenomenon speak to the power of space exploration in our collective consciousness?

 

The rate at which we are getting data back from Mars continues to amaze me. We have two working robots on the surface of Mars, plus the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, all beaming back new information in what seems like daily increments. With that in mind, I thought I’d summarize the current state of the Mars project as it happens.

“Blueberries” and.. not “blueberries”:

A subject on which I’m just catching up now. Apparently, the Mars rover Opportunity has been studying what scientists have nicknamed “blueberries” on the surface of Mars since it landed. The blueberries are actually round pellets of iron-rich sedimentary rock that scientists believe were formed when Mars still had liquid water on its surface.

But what Opportunity has discovered nowis a bit of a mystery. They look similar, but apparently have a completely different composition. Scientists used a laser spectrometer to analyze the contents and discovered that the new spherules have concentric spheres of composition. “They seem to be crunchy on the outside, and softer in the middle,” says Steve Squyres of Cornell University.

So… apparently, Mars is the Home of the Whopper? Time will tell..

Dippin’ Dots, my ass.

Curiosity flexes its arm:

Curiosity continues to go through system-wide diagnostics as it preps for its mission. One major component of the Mars Curiosity Rover is its robotic arm, loaded to the gills with scientific whiz-bang. Since September 5th, JPL engineers have been testing out the 7 foot long arm and its tools, getting ready for Curiosity to touch its first Martian rocks.

The robotic arm includes the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS), which is the same technology Opportunity used to test the composition of the blueberries. The arm is also equipped with a camera which it can use to take close-up, color photos of rocks. The press release notes that this is the fifth week of a two year mission, but doesn’t say what the next step will be.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!:

For those of you dreading the oncoming Rochester winter, take heart! There is in fact a place with even shittier winters: the southern pole of Mars.

Scientists analyzing data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have discovered the best evidence yet that winter on Mars brings carbon dioxide snowfalls to its south pole. While scientists have known about carbon dioxide ice on the polar caps for decades, this represents the first time they’ve been able to show evidence that the atmosphere produces carbon dioxide clouds that grow thick enough to produce precipitation. Carbon dioxide, remember, freezes at -193°.

So, like, buck up, Rochesterians!

As my attention is turned more and more to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I have to admit that I’m getting confused with all the various missions. Now that I’m starting to get regular press releases from JPL, they’re all starting to run together. After only last year bemoaning the loss of the Space Shuttle program, it is shocking to discover just how much is really going on in space!

So, while the JPL website lists all its programs in alphabetical order, I thought I’d take the time to list out the more news-making missions here:

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Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover

The subject of probably the most intense media coverage since the dawn of the Shuttle Program, Curiosity is only the second full mission and third landing on the planet Mars. The rover is currently en route for Aeolis Mons, the mysterious mountain in the middle of Gale Crater.

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Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Critical to many missions on and near Mars, the MRO takes  satellite-level photos and readings of the Martian surface. Some of the best pics of the Curiosity landing were taken  from right here on this satellite.

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Cassini-Huygens

This one’s a joint venture of NASA and the European Space Agency, orbiting around Saturn and her moons. Any awesome photo you’ve seen in the last ten years of Saturn most likely came from this satellite.

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Dawn

It’s not enough to understand the planets, we also need to understand asteroids. Hence Dawn’s mission to understand the geography and dynamism of Vesta, an asteroid nearly the size of Pluto. Soon, it will be turning its attention to the “dwarf planet” Ceres.

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Voyager I & II

The furthest-traveled piece of human engineering in the history of mankind, the Voyager mission includes two travelers, each of which has entered into the heliosphere. The heliosphere is the outer edge of the effects of our sun’s solar winds and considered to be the “official” edge of our solar system. Voyager 1 has already breached the heliosphere and entered interstellar space.

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Juno

Here’s a sneak preview of one mission that’s only just now getting started in earnest. While we’ve seen a lot of the atmosphere of Jupiter and her tumultuous storms, no one has yet peered into the heart of the gas giant. That is,  until Juno gets there. Juno’s mission and instrumentation involves complex but proven means of pushing the clouds aside for a glimpse of the deep inside of Jupiter. The spacecraft has only just now turned from orbiting Earth to its slingshot trajectory that will propel it towards its destination. Stay tuned!

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As if last week’s landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars weren’t cool enough news on its own, that landing also contained an acknowledging nod towards our very own Rochester, NY.

Street cred? Nah, Man. Space cred – something Rochester apparently has had for quite some time, albeit, slightly under the radar.

When you think of cities rich in space technologies, you probably think of Houston or Cape Canaveral. But Rochester? 8 years ago during the summer of 2004, NASA and Xerox announced a technology partnership, formed to help NASA implement the then Vision for Space Exploration.  The Constellation Program ended with last summer’s final Endeavor launch, but space investigation is not dead – far from it.  Our Greater Rochester Area continues to be of help in space discovery – which brings us back to the Curiosity.

NASA’s Curiosity, a robotic rover now on the surface of Mars, carries a little piece of home with it.  A variety of optics manufactured by Optimax Systems Inc., a Wayne County optics firm, is used in the cameras that are attached to Curiosity’s remote sensing mass. Additionally, the rover is operating with image sensors manufactured by Truesense Imaging Inc. of Rochester. That’s 2 points for the home team!

It should come as no surprise, then, that one of New York’s three chapters of the National Space Society (the other two both hosted in the New York City area) calls Rochester home. This non-profit, grassroots organization dedicates itself to the creation of civilization in space and is widely touted as the preeminent citizen’s voice on space. Rochester’s NSS chapter is made up of local space enthusiasts who are all very passionate regarding the future of space travel and is extremely active in promoting space education throughout schools and exhibits at area events. Any member will adamantly confirm for you that although the space shuttle program has ended, space travel is only just beginning.

To learn more about NSS membership or their upcoming plans for space travel, check out their mission statement. Even if you never got to go to Space Camp like you dreamed of as a kid, the next best thing may just be in your backyard!

 

With new photos coming in every few days, you might think this could get boring. It won’t but you might think that.

The most amazing thing about the current batch of photos is just how well-documented the landing actually is. Several images reveal the Curiosity landing area and all its various parts, all predictably arranged on the surface. Enjoy:

The Curiosity rover is already paying dividends in amazing photography, as it has just beamed back a series of photos showing its descent to the Martian surface. The amazing sequence of snap shots includes a series of images of the heat shield that protected Curiosity for most of the descent falling away as the rover continues on with its mission. Even more amazing, NASA JPL put together a stop-motion video piecing together multiple shots into a single mesmerizing stop-motion animation of Curiosity’s descent which you can watch here.

The excitement at Curiosity’s safe landing on Mars was felt well beyond Mission Control last night, as directors, White House officials and science geeks of all varieties took to Twitter and press releases to express their enthusiasm.

The gold star for American rah-rah goes to White House Science Advisor John Holdren, who put it this way:

“And if anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of US leadership in space, well there is a one-ton automobile sized piece of American ingenuity that is sitting on the surface of Mars right now,”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden went even further:

Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars — or if the planet can sustain life in the future. This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030’s, and today’s landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal.

And Scientist and television personality Neil Degrasse-Tyson went with a more Trekkie take:

Given the hammering he’s taken on Fox News and elsewhere over his (entirely sane, well-supported) opinions on global climate change, Bill Nye the Science Guy’s take is even more amusing:

While the official Mars Curiosity Twitter feed asked us something bigger:

President Obama’s remarks on the touch down read in part:

Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history. The successful landing of Curiosity – the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet – marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future. It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination… I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality – and I eagerly await what Curiosity has yet to discover.

Already, the mission is paying dividends, proving that the unique – read: right on the edge of wacky – design for the “Sky Crane” could do its job. By allowing the Rover to be set down in a precise location, the new lander paves the way for much more accurate landings and telemetry. The previous two landers were bounced across the surface of Mars in giant airbag cocoons.

Mission Control believes that the first real operations on the ground will take place sometime in September, after extensive diagnostics are performed. In the meanwhile, Curiosity stands at the foot of an enormous mountain in the middle of a crater the size of the San Fernando Valley, awaiting its next command.

Photo courtesy The Universe Facebook group.